Written in three weeks in the later months of 1912, and published three years later in 1915, The Metamorphosis is Franza Kafka’s most famous work. The short novel tells the tragic and disturbing story of Gregor Samsa who wakes up one day to discover he’s been transformed into a gigantic insect/vermin. The story catches a reader’s attention through the direct way that this transformation is introduced and the surprising nature of Gregor’s reaction to it.
Family Responsibility and Priorities
Rather than screaming or questioning his own sanity, Gregor’s first concern is his family. This is a feature rather than a bug of his personality. His family, in all things, comes first for Gregor. As the story progresses and from Gregor’s perspective the reader learns more about his life, his dedication to his family is emphasized. He is a travelling salesman, a job with people and hours that he hates. Despite this, he continues. His family is far from wealthy and most of the money he makes goes to paying off his father’s debts. Gregor’s responsibility to his family, and responsibility in general, is one of the most important themes of this piece.
When Gregor’s condition becomes clear to his family, their reaction is what a reader is probably expecting. I found myself hoping that they’d somehow share his practical approach to the situation and find empathy for the poor man. But, this was not the case. They screamed in fright and disgust and Gregor sadly scampered back into the room.
The story is told from Gregor’s perspective and therefore a reader should empathize with him to the greatest extent. Because we learn about his new life at the same time he does, confront the same obstacles and emotions, it is easier to understand him. This speaks to Kafka’s skill as a writer, particularly his ability to build a difficult character in a very challenging situation. I found myself imagining how the affective qualities of the novel would’ve been different had the story been told from Grete’s perspective, or even Mr. Samsa’s. A reader’s emotional investment might end up with a different character.
There are so many unknowns in The Metamorphosis. The mystery of how Gregor became an insect is never answered, nor does anyone address it as anything more than a very inconvenient turn of events. It takes Gregor some time to get used to his new body, but eventually, he comes to enjoy crawling on the wall and ceiling and hiding in dark places as a large cockroach would. The harder transformation is occurring within him. He tries hard, despite how he’s treated by his family members, to hang on to his humanity. Grete feeds him for a time, but even she backs off and turns on him. He’s left with his memories and his few possessions until the family comes to take those as well.
One of the most moving and disturbing scenes in the book comes when Gregor crawls onto the wall on top of a photograph that he’s determined to keep. This action results in his mother seeing him, fainting, and then him being attacked by his father with apples. Gregor sustains serious injuries and the family backs away from him even more.
Gregor is entirely alone at this point and the reader feels as he does, trapped in his room forced to listen to his family move on with their lives below him. He struggles with the fact that he can’t help them financially or take pleasure from his sister’s playing of the violin. At one point, the latter inspires him to leave his room. He’s spotting by lodgers in the apartment and they leave, horrified. It is at this point, having hurt his family’s income once more, that Gregor decides that he’s too much of a burden on them. He dies, alone, and unloved by everyone.
At this point I found myself hoping that one member of the family might show regret for the way he was treated, but that was not what happened. They moved on with their lives, relieved to be rid of their son/brother.
The Metamorphosis: Franz Kafka's Masterpiece
Lasting Effect on Reader
The Metamorphosis Review
The Metamorphosis is a book that sticks with you. Kafka takes the reader into a world where one absurd, pointless event changes a man’s life. Gregor’s struggles with his own humanity, the way his family treats him, and his unabating guilt make him incredibly relatable. But, his newfound form, that of a giant insect (perhaps a cockroach or some kind of flying beetle) makes him repulsive and hard to accept as human.
Readers will leave this book wondering how and why this transformation took place. Unfortunately or fortunately, there is no answer to that question. It has left readers guessing since its publication in 1915.
- Rich and memorable imagery
- An unusual storyline
- Existentially compelling and thoughtful.
- Many questions left unanswered.
- All the characters are unlikeable.
- Gregor’s insect form is never described making him hard to imagine.